Why most advice is awful (yep, even yours)

Half of image features empty table and chairs on a beach, with sign above saying "Free advice". Other half is grey background with sky blue lettering saying "No takers, huh?"
I used to follow a blog written by a woman in her mid-twenties that was funny, moving, and finely-crafted. Then one day I clicked on her latest post and discovered that this blogger who was younger than me (!!) was telling me how to eat.

With no knowledge of my circumstances or tastes, and no qualifications in nutritional counselling, she’d decided to forgo her usual personal stories in favour of lecturing me and the rest of her readers about saturated fats. I can’t be the only one who clicked away thinking I’ve already heard of vegetables, thanks.

She may have been my first, but she certainly wasn’t my last.

Whereas blogs used to be about people sharing their struggles and successes, now they more often seem to involve screaming tough love aphorisms into the ether like a cut-price Dr Phil. On Twitter, it’s even worse. You’re scrolling through this wondrous, enormous, ongoing conversation between strangers, friends and the odd celebrity, when suddenly an acquaintance barges in and drops some earnest “inspirational” quote or invocation to relax/be humble/count your blessings. It’s a bummer.

If you tell me about your life, it makes me feel less alone but if you climb onto a soapbox, it makes me feel like a toddler. It puts a distance between us, like you think you know better than me, even though you don’t know me at all.

And this drive to dole out unsolicited advice isn’t limited to the internet — people also loooooove to give it out IRL. Anyone who has been through a long-term illness (or, I’m guessing, any other challenging ongoing situation) knows the drill:

You’re half-heartedly surfing the net, wondering if The Daily Bunny has updated yet, when you hear the ping or see the open envelope that signals you’ve got mail. Or you check your blog and there’s a long comment. Maybe it’s a brief but didactic tweet. It could even be a letter or (ew) a real life conversation.

Whatever form it takes, the medium doesn’t matter. It’s all about the message. And the message is: Did you ever hear of… Have you thought about doing… Do you think that maybe you should…?

In other words: WOW, ARE YOU HANDLING THIS ALL WRONG.

I get that in most cases, people are trying to be nice. They’re overzealous because they did something that worked, or they heard about someone who did something that worked, and they think that if I tried it, I’d feel better, too. They want the best for me, which is sweet.

But chances are I’ve either tried it, or already looked into it and discounted it. And I probably don’t want to have to justify why. I know that might sound hypocritical considering I put things out there. I write about my life, my health, and my feeeeeelings. But that’s not because I’m looking for advice or answers. I’m just blabbering publicly as a way to try to make sense of stuff (although a little empathy never goes astray).

If you start giving me health advice out of the blue, you’re reminding me of the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, something I haven’t come to terms with, even after all this time. (Especially after all this time.) Plus, you’re letting me know that my illness is a big part of your conception of me, which hurts my feelings because even if my situation seems dire, I still spend more time thinking about writing and reading and TV and cute animals than I do about my identity as an ill person, and I don’t want other people to see me as someone to feel sorry for.

You’re also telling me that you don’t think I can get better using my own resources, whereas I know — deep down, in a place I don’t always acknowledge (no, not my colon) — that I’ll get through this and come out the other side. It’s just a longer and more difficult journey than I could ever have imagined.

It might not look like I’m doing enough, or handling it right, but I’m doing my best and trying harder than it might seem. So if you send me “helpful” info, you not only bamboozle me (sunbeds? Self-administering enemas?!), you make it seem like you don’t trust me, or that you’d be better at this than I am. (You might be right about that. Swapsies?)

Perhaps aware of how annoying the influx of unasked-for amateur health advice is to someone with a chronic illness, people have actually started advising me by proxy, asking my loved ones questions like: “Has Diane thought about…?” “Why doesn’t Diane try…?” Or even: “Why don’t you buy her some [magical cure] right now?”

Again, they think they can help. But they’re making assumptions about my situation without making any attempt to understand it, and they’re stressing out the people I’m closest to.

Yet as much as I’d like to, I can’t pretend I’m above it. I’ve seethed at useless men my friends should’ve dumped, wondered why an acquaintance doesn’t stop whining and do that thing she should obviously do, and despaired that so-and-so won’t confront X about Y.

Someone else’s life is always simpler from the outside. The insider’s view, with all of its emotions and ramifications and financial consequences, is much messier.

Most of the time, we don’t know other people’s lives, not really. That’s why even when advice is solicited, its use is limited. We can only ever tell other people what works for us (or what we think might work for us), which could be entirely wrong for the person we’re advising.

Plus, when you boil down most of the advice on offer, especially online, it has the same simplistic moral: if you feel bad about something, try not to.

Worse than being useless, some advice is potentially dangerous. Slate’s Ask Prudence has a history as a rape apologist, which only perpetuates victim-blaming. And I recently heard a podcast where the hosts gave advice to someone who said she was suicidal — but they didn’t recommend a suicide hotline or other emergency sources of help, because they lacked the psychological training to know that they should.

That’s the trouble with turning other people’s problems into entertainment — your influence could be disastrous. Which makes me wonder why so many of us are so desperate to dish out advice in the first place.

I suspect it’s more about feeling important and trying to impose order on a random universe than actually “helping” anyone. I also suspect that the most useful thing you can do for someone who’s having a tough time is to listen to what they’re going through, try not to judge, and when you’re inspired to tell them how to handle things… STFU.

Image: Laughlin Elkind on Flickr (+ Photoshop).

  • Sue Hepworth

    oh dear. guilty. well said, though. I have had this experience myself and wanted to sock the woman in the jaw.

    • Ha, thanks, Sue. I think we’ve all been guilty of it at some point, it’s just so easy to slip into telling someone else what to do. But we must resist!

      • sue hepworth

        I know the last time I did it, I felt tremendous sympathy for the person, and having been in a situation myself that suddenly opened out because of some new bit of info I had not come across, let alone considered, I wanted to suggest it to the person in case it helped them too. It was well-meant, and sprang from empathy and sympathy and not from a desire to give advice per se.

        • I think that’s the case with most unsolicited advice, but I still think people will probably find what they need in their own time. Of course, I may be wrong. (?!)

  • WORD.

    Unsolicited advice is my number one pet peeve right now: to an extent that I’m aware I’ve become super-sensitive to it, and will bristle at even the slightest hint that someone is trying to advise me about something. I know that’s MY problem, but honestly, it’s just so overwhelming sometimes. I don’t notice it quite so much with the sites I read (I bet I will now, though!) but oh, the comments. The COMMENTS. Some days I feel like EVERYTHING I say is taken is a request for advice, when the reality is that I almost NEVER ask the internet for advice (Learned that lesson about 7 years ago…), and if I do, I will always label it very clearly as “this is a request for advice, what do you think I should do?”

    But seriously: it’s now reached a point where everything I write is so riddled with disclaimers in a bid to avoid unsolicited advice that it annoys even me, and even with the disclaimers, everything I write is STILL taken as a request for advice. I do realise that (most of the time) the people are just trying to be helpful, but often it’s just horribly patronising. I suspect I invite a lot of it because I have a fairly self-deprecating writing style, but a lot of it makes me cringe because it’s advice about the most basic stuff imaginable, and I just think, “Wow, did you really think I’m SO stupid I wouldn’t have known that?”

    Anyway, I realise I’m rambling here, so I will just say that I can only imagine how much more annoying this must be when it’s health related. I only have a small amount of experience with that, but I know from the many, many other subjects I’m constantly being advised about that it can get quite stressful because you end up having to spend so much time essentially arguing with the person about why their advice won’t work for you (Almost always because they know NOTHING ABOUT YOU), then having them suggest new things which are ALSO based on a foundation of KNOWING NOTHING ABOUT YOU, and so on and so forth. Frustrating.

    “I suspect it’s more about feeling important and trying to impose order on a random universe than actually “helping” anyone.”

    Totally. And although I said above that I know people are trying to be helpful, I have to admit that most of the time I think they’re just looking for an excuse to talk about themselves and THEIR experiences, rather than trying to help with yours.

    • “…Most of the time I think they’re just looking for an excuse to talk
      about themselves and THEIR experiences, rather than trying to help with
      yours.” Yes, I think this is often true, although the sad thing is, if they’d just talk to someone about what they’ve been through (not necessarily the person they’re trying to advise…) they’d probably find that more gratifying than giving tips where they’re not welcome.

      I agree there’s something about having a self-deprecating writing style that makes people think they should tell you what to do, which is extra frustrating because it’s like, “Not only are you giving me unsolicited advice, you don’t get my sense of humour!”

      I’ve seen one blog that says “we don’t give each other advice here!” at the top of every comments section, which seems a little extreme, but I totally understand and respect it.

      • I’ve considered having “I’M ALMOST ALWAYS JOKING” or something similar at the top of mine, and you’re so right about how frustrating it can be. I tend to make the assumption that most readers will “get” my humour, but there are a lot who take it completely seriously, and it’s hard to know whether it’s a failure in my writing or a failure in their sense of humour that’s to blame. I’m going to guess it’s me: never blame the reader, after all!

        Speaking of failures in writing, sorry about all of the typos in that lengthy comment – I was just so thrilled to know that someone else GETS IT!

        • Wait, I thought it was “always blame the reader”…? Let’s face it, there are some really terrible readers out there 😉 And no need to apologise! A lengthy, enthusiastic comment is a blogger’s holy grail.

  • Not enough thumbs up in the world for this post 🙂

  • Emma Johnston

    Completely agree. I too am very guilty of giving advise though I try to limit to where to buy cheap shoes. One of my bestest friends has me on edge every day, giving me, as Amber said, what I call patronising advice. It actually drives me up the wall. Do they not know me?? Do they think I’m so stupid I cannot see/haven’t already done/already considered whatever banal things they suggest? Its worse though when I actually do ask for help. I like to think I’m fairly intelligent, and if I’m asking for help on the internet, then I’ve exhausted all obvious channels. I don’t need to be told ‘Did you turn off and on again’ by 6 different people.

    What’s even worse is parenting advice from people who do not have kids. Child not eating? OF COURSE I’m going to listen to what you tell me to do!!

    Yesterday I tweeted a genuine call for advise, on what to do when I went to Dublin for a long weekend. I had to tweet it twice before I got a response. From one person. Bet if I said I was needing to loose 28lbs before the holiday I would have 100’s of people telling me how to do it.

    • Yes, you make a good point: when you actually want useful advice, it’s so much harder to come by! I couldn’t really speak to this not having had a child, but I hear that it brings a whole new load of unwanted advice, which must be so irritating. (Pamela Ribon wrote a great blog post about being pregnant and total strangers butting into her business: http://pamie.com/2012/12/you-should-be/)

      Ps: I went to Dublin a long time ago, so all I can think of is the Guinness museum and Kilmainham Gaol, neither of which is very original… I’m sure I don’t need to advise you not to go on the open top deck of a tour bus in the middle of winter, like I did. Brrrr.

      • Emma Johnston

        Hah thanks, def going to see the Guiness factory, but hadn’t considered the Gaol! John will like that one too 🙂

  • A

    Obvs I’m as guilty as the next person. I found myself having to check myself in person yesterday when someone I know – not that well, either – confided in me about being the victim of an assault. Although I mentioned reporting it, I had to bite my tongue and make absolutely sure I didn’t give “helpful” advice – and she seemed relieved by that, as it turned out the pressure from her family to report etc was making her feel even more stressed. She was more likely to tackle it if supported kindly and made to feel empowered, rather than nagged. It was a lesson and a half about learning when to intervene appropriately, and when being “helpful” might actually make things worse.

    • Yes, I think I’ve even read that with any kind of problem or goal (weight loss, work stuff etc.), empathising and supporting in more of a general way can actually encourage people to take action, because they don’t feel under pressure to do so.

  • Anne-Marie

    I had a colleague who used to give me ‘advice’ all the time, when usually I was just ranting about something – I knew full well what to do about a situation, I just wanted to vent! It’s so very annoying. I know that I’m guilty of doing it too, though – Diane, if I ever do it to you you have my permission to tweet/email me a picture of something truly horrible, like Mick Hucknall, as punishment.

    • Hahahaha! You’re on (and feel free to do the same to me, I’m not immune to the urge.) Yes, I don’t know why some people don’t understand that a little empathy about an annoying situation goes a lot further than telling someone what to do. Just let me have my feelings, and then we can move on.

  • Clodagh

    So agree. I’ve had a lot of advice-by-proxy for a family member with health issues, and it drives me to distraction – to the point where I just avoid the subject now with certain people.

    But you know what’s nearly more annoying? People giving you advice about how to solve a ‘problem’ that you’re not aware of as a problem in the first place – being single, for example, or ‘too quiet’ (both major problems of mine, apparently). What they’re basically is *they* have a problem with your personality or the way you live. So first they tell you you have a problem, and then they tell you how to ‘solve’ it so you can be more like them. Yay! 🙁

    • Oh no, that IS annoying! And actually, I’ve been criticised (or do I mean “helped”?) on both those issues too. I had one friend who’d be like, “Now, we just need to find you a boyfriend”, as if I was some fixer-upper she was taking pity on. WE don’t need to do anything, and I didn’t want a boyfriend just a few months after a big relationship break up, thanks all the same. What really surprises me I think is people’s lack of imagination in not understanding that not everyone feels like they do.